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Public Theater (#110 of 10)

Interview: Martin Sherman on Gently Down the Stream, Gay History, and More

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Interview: Martin Sherman Talks Gently Down the Stream, Gay History, and More

Walter Kurtz

Interview: Martin Sherman Talks Gently Down the Stream, Gay History, and More

It’s hard to pin Martin Sherman down. His work as a playwright ranges across a wide variety of styles and subject matter, and getting him to talk about this work isn’t exactly easy. As I learned from several conversations with him over the past two decades, Sherman can be friendly without being revealing. Now a sprightly septuagenarian, he hasn’t exactly changed his tune.

Sherman’s best-known work, of course, is Bent, arguably one of the most influential gay-themed plays in theatrical history. That 1979 triumph is in large part responsible for raising awareness of the persecution of gay men in Nazi-occupied Germany, and the adoption of the pink triangle as a symbol of gay activism may be traced to Bent’s cultural impact. The American-born writer made London his home nearly four decades ago, shortly after the 1980 Broadway debut of Bent. Today, as Sherman himself ruefully acknowledges, his subsequent plays are better known in London than in New York.

Among those plays that still managed to cross the pond and find success in America: When She Danced, a comedy about Isadora Duncan; A Madhouse in Goa, an apocalyptic satire about art and commerce; and Rose, a one-woman show (starring Olympia Dukakis) that chronicles the life of a European Jewish émigré. In addition, Sherman also wrote the book for the Broadway version of The Boy from Oz, the musical which starred Hugh Jackman as the Australian composer and entertainer Peter Allen.

Sherman was recently back in the United States for the world premiere of his latest work, Gently Down the Stream, which is currently in previews at the Public Theater in Downtown Manhattan. When we sat down to chat, I set out to draw him out enough to learn something about the current play, which is publicized as a funny and moving love story about Beau (played by Harvey Fierstein), an expat pianist living in London who meets an eccentric young lawyer, Rufus (Gabriel Ebert), at the dawn of the Internet dating revolution.

Richard Nelson on The Gabriels and the Hunger of Politics and Family

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Richard Nelson on The Gabriels and the Hunger of Politics and Family

Joan Marcus

Richard Nelson on The Gabriels and the Hunger of Politics and Family

Earlier this year, playwright Richard Nelson launched a unique three-play cycle at the Public Theater which sets out to track, in real time, the lives of an American family during this tumultuous election year. Each play takes place on the day of its opening night: the first, Hungry, which opened in March, introduced us to the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York (the playwright’s own home for the past 34 years); the second, What Did You Expect?, opens tonight at the Public Theater, while the final play in the cycle, Women of a Certain Age, will premiere on election night, November 8.

This isn’t the first time that Nelson has undertaken a project that comprised a set of contemporaneous plays. His last venture at the Public, The Apple Family Plays, was a cycle of four intimate plays that premiered over a period of four years. The Apples, like the Gabriels, also lived in Rhinebeck, and each play was designed to open on the evening of a significant moment or event in American life and politics: That Hopey Changey Thing on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections; Sweet and Sad on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; Sorry on election night 2012; and Regular Singing on the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Interview: Sanjit De Silva Talks Race, Acting, and His Role in Dry Powder

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Interview: Sanjit De Silva Talks Race, Acting, and His Role in Dry Powder
Interview: Sanjit De Silva Talks Race, Acting, and His Role in Dry Powder

“Finally I’m in a place where I’m doing the kind of work I want to do, and I’m being seen in the way that I want to be seen,” says Sri Lankan-born actor Sanjit De Silva. Landing the part of an American CEO in Sarah Burgess’s new play, Dry Powder, a high-stakes financial drama which opens this week at the Public Theater, is a milestone in De Silva’s decade-long career as a working actor in New York City. “I hope this trend continues,” he adds smiling.

De Silva left his native country in 1984 at age seven, not long after the outbreak of a civil war that would tear apart the South Asian nation for the next 30 years. (His parents each belonged to the opposing ethnic groups in the conflict, which made normal life untenable for them in the country.) After a brief stint in Africa, the family moved to America in 1986. Now based in Brooklyn, De Silva recently spoke to me about his experience establishing a career as an actor in his adopted country, both as an immigrant and a person of color, and about his current role in Dry Powder.

Interview: Director Robert O’Hara Talks Wild with Happy

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Interview: Director Robert O’Hara Talks Wild with Happy
Interview: Director Robert O’Hara Talks Wild with Happy

Now playing downtown at the Public Theater, Wild with Happy is a wacky and outrageously funny take on death and grieving written by Colman Domingo, who also plays the lead role in the play. The actor-playwright is best known to New York audiences for his multiple roles in Stew’s Passing Strange and for his Tony-nominated turn in Kander and Ebb’s musical The Scottsboro Boys. He also wrote and performed A Boy and His Soul, a solo work which premiered off-Broadway in 2010. In his new play, Domingo plays Gil, a struggling New York actor who returns to his home in Philadelphia to arrange for his mother’s funeral. He’s flooded with memories of his mother when she was alive and has to face the admonitions of her sister, his aunt Glo (both parts played to the hilt by Sharon Washington), who has her own ideas about proper rites for the dead. With the help of his friend Mo (Maurice McRae) and an unusually attentive undertaker (Korey Jackson), Gil eventually finds resolution and his deceased mother gets a fairytale send-off, courtesy of Disney.

The zany goings-on in Wild with Happy are overseen by Robert O’Hara, a director with a taste for the wild and outrageous himself. O’Hara, who’s also a playwright, made a splash when he was in his mid 20s with Insurrection: Holding History, which he directed at the Public Theater in 1996. An epic tale about a gay black college grad student who time-travels back to the days of the Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831 more than lived up to its billing as “Roots meets The Wizard of Oz.” O’Hara spoke to us recently about his collaboration with Domingo on Wild with Happy.

February House Composer Gabriel Kahane and Book Writer Seth Bockley Talk Communal Music

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February House Composer Gabriel Kahane and Book Writer Seth Bockley Talk Communal Music
February House Composer Gabriel Kahane and Book Writer Seth Bockley Talk Communal Music

Currently playing downtown at the Public Theater, February House marks composer-lyricist Gabriel Kahane and book writer Seth Bockley’s first venture into musical theater. The two men, both 30, pursued independent career paths since they first met as students at Brown University: Kahane as a singer-songwriter and composer of concert works and Bockley as a playwright and director. For their first musical together, Kahane and Bockley drew inspiration from the historical confluence of an extraordinary group of artists who made a home for themselves in a dilapidated house in Brooklyn Heights during the early years of WWII.

The curious experiment in communal living was instigated by 34-year-old George Davis, who at the time was fiction editor for Harper’s Bazaar. Davis persuaded a talented, eclectic bunch to move into the house at number 7 Middagh Street, among them English writer W. H. Auden, already an established poet of distinction, who moved in with his young boyfriend, aspiring poet Chester Kallman; up-and-coming British composer Benjamin Britten, who moved in with Peter Pears, the English tenor who remained his lifelong companion; Southern novelist Carson McCullers, who had recently achieved major success with her debut novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; and, most intriguingly, burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, who wrote a bestselling crime novel, The G-String Murders, during her stay at the house in Brooklyn. The artists were in their 20s and 30s at the time, with McCullers, the youngest at 23 and Auden the eldest at 33.

The saga of this volatile mix of young artistic sensibilities, all at crucial points in their careers, is documented in a nonfiction work by Sherill Tippins, titled February House, the name given to the dwelling by writer Anaïs Nin because many of the residents had birthdays in February. We recently caught up with Kahane and Bockley to chat about February House, a musical based on Tippins’s book.

Between East and West An Interview with David Henry Hwang

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Between East and West: An Interview with David Henry Hwang
Between East and West: An Interview with David Henry Hwang

David Henry Hwang’s new Broadway play, Chinglish, begins with an American sign manufacturer talking about his experiences in China, offering his insights about doing business in that country. Just how well he has succeeded in understanding his partners and business practices in a foreign culture becomes clear as the play progresses. The insightful and witty comedy, written in both English and Mandarin (translated very effectively with subtitles projected onto the set) is the latest from the author of the 1988 Tony and Drama Desk award-winning play M. Butterfly, and is currently playing at the Longacre Theater. Chinglish offers a lively and thought-provoking look at a cross-cultural exchange that is likely to continue to figure prominently in the first half of this century.

Hwang made his mark as a playwright with FOB (an Asian-American derogative term for new immigrants who arrive in in the U.S. “Fresh Off the Boat” from Asia) which was produced in New York at the Public Theater in 1980. In the intervening years, the California-born playwright, now 54, has become one of the preeminent Asian-American voices in the theater. He achieved international recognition with M. Butterfly, which is loosely based on a true story about a French diplomat who fell in love with a Peking Opera star, who also happened to be a Chinese government spy, allegedly without realizing that “she” was really a man. In addition to his plays, Hwang work includes librettos for music theater works by Philip Glass, several screenplays and the books for the Disney musicals Aida and Tarzan. He was nominated for a Tony in 1998 for his second play on Broadway, Golden Child, which is inspired by stories about his ancestors related to him by his Chinese maternal grandmother. After a decade’s absence, he returned to the New York stage in 2007 with Yellow Face, a comedy in which he examined his own evolving feelings regarding the controversy in the early nineties caused by the casting of a Caucasian actor as the male lead in Miss Saigon. The Obie-winning play, also a finalist that year for the Pulitzer, was staged at the Public Theater under the direction of Leigh Silverman, who also directed Chinglish. Hwang talked recently to The House Next Door about his new work.

Staging Solos: An Interview with The Patsy‘s David Greenspan

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Staging Solos: An Interview with The Patsy’s David Greenspan
Staging Solos: An Interview with The Patsy’s David Greenspan

David Greenspan sets the tone for a delightful evening of theater magic by jumping onto a jewel-box stage set at the start of The Patsy. There are no doorways on this set, nor is there a ceiling; it’s a three-walled cube tastefully decorated with wallpaper and a few sticks of period furniture and props. In the nonstop 75-minute solo performance that follows, Greenspan resurrects a drawing-room comedy from the 1920s—three acts of family drama, witty banter, and romance, complete with a cast of eight characters. First presented on Broadway in 1925, the play, written by Barry Conners, centers on the Harringtons, a quarrelsome middle-class family. The father is a weary travelling salesman, the mother a social-climbing complainer, the elder daughter has just snagged a rich suitor, and the younger, bookish and disregarded by the others, harbors a secret passion for her sister’s former, now discarded, lover. Without ever leaving the stage, Greenspan gleefully impersonates all the characters, which includes the girls’ two young beaus and two walk-ons, charting their comings and goings and their emotional ups and downs, and setting the scene as needed by reading occasional stage directions as well.

A multiple OBIE winner and Drama Desk nominee, Greenspan is a frequent and distinctive presence on the New York stage. It’s not exactly a surprise to see him turn out a bravura performance. Looking back at some of his career highlights, one doesn’t easily forget his over the top Other Mother in Coraline, a musical he co-wrote with composer/lyricist Stephin Merritt; his exquisitely stylized portrayal of the acerbic Harold in the 1996 revival of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band; or the exasperating drag queen who delivers a moving rendition of “Over the Rainbow” on the eve of the Stonewall uprising in Terrence McNally’s Some Men. Going even further back in time, you might also recall his one-of-a-kind turn as a neurotic artist obsessively channeling Streisand in the 1992 Public Theater production of his own The Home Show Pieces. No stranger to multiple roles, he has also breezed singlehandedly through his own The Myopia, a 25-character cavalcade extravagantly subtitled “an epic burlesque of tragic proportion,” which was revived in January last year.

Imitation of Life: The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church

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Imitation of Life: <em>The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church</em>
Imitation of Life: <em>The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church</em>

“What are you writing there? Are you reviewing? You’re a bit late!” Daniel Kitson teased a young man seated in the audience scribbling away at the January 16th matinee of The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, Kitson’s one-man show that opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO 10 days earlier as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. (For the record, this mile-a-minute monologue that made audiences swoon at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival plays through the end of the month, having outrun the UTR festival. And also for the record, this critic has a good excuse for tardiness, having just arrived back in NYC from Europe.) “You review away,” the bearded and bubbly, disarmingly charming standup comedian and actor continued. “But the critics have spoken. And it’s a hit!”

Am I Too Old for This Shit?: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at the Public Theater

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Am I Too Old for This Shit?: <em>Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson</em> at the Public Theater
Am I Too Old for This Shit?: <em>Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson</em> at the Public Theater

Having just had a birthday, and with each subsequent one, I often wonder when I’ll cross the line from cheerful youth abandon to “get off my lawn!” crankiness. Well, it may have just happened, or quite possibly I have finally become tired of high-concept hipster larks, which sadly, much of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson absolutely reeks of. The comic emo rock musical, tracing the seventh president’s rocky reign from obscurity to displacing Native American tribes to expanding the U.S. populace and creating the Democratic Party, is historical revisionism for the late-term SNL era. And yet, despite a pedigree including director Alex Timbers (artistic director of famed company Les Freres Corbusier) and composer Michael Friedman (This Beautiful City), it rarely ever becomes much more than an overextended 12:48 a.m. skit you might see on SNL, except one in which the cast can curse to their hearts’ content and wink so ruthlessly at the audience you begin to wonder if the Public Theater will begin offering special compensation for eye strain.

The Book of Grace at the Public Theater

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<em>The Book of Grace</em> at the Public Theater
<em>The Book of Grace</em> at the Public Theater

“They see the creases, they know they’re done for!” carps Vet (John Doman), a belligerent South Texas border cop pontificating on the mindset of illegals when they see the sharp indents of his pants in Suzan-Lori Parks’s newest, The Book of Grace. It’s an astute analogy, given that Parks—never one to give audiences an easy route through the swirling, often bizarre complexities of her characters—absolutely lets you see the creases here, and certain audiences not on her wavelength are most certainly done for. However, her blackly comic Southern gothic, despite its longueurs and occasional overreaches, is sprinkled with poetic assertions on postwar distress and home-life abuses, and in James Macdonald’s first-rate production at the Public, it occasionally even manages to cast a sinister spell.